Montreal Gazette

Same old story as mordant indictment of culture

- KAREN HELLER

Wayward Dana Spiotta Alfred A. Knopf

A woman unhappy in marriage, despondent in her middle-aged body, trapped in her suburban home, rebuffed by her teenage daughter, underemplo­yed at a historic home, furious at the political moment (2017, a certain unexpected president) decides to upend her life and flee the circumstan­ces. Wayward is a mordant, coruscatin­g indictment of these times, liberal politics, affluenza, self improvemen­t and social identity. This is what readers have come to expect from Dana Spiotta, author of the indelible 2006 novel Eat the Document.

Spiotta's fifth novel launches as a love story. Samantha “Sam” Raymond, age 53, swoons for neither human nor beast, but real estate — specifical­ly, a dilapidate­d Arts and Crafts cottage in a sketchy Syracuse neighbourh­ood that she buys on impulse to ignite her freshly woke life.

Sam refers to her moment as “the Mids.” Like Syracuse, like her new urban refuge, she worries that her glory days may be far, far behind her. She craves discomfort of her own making.

Wayward is a billet-doux to that city, where Spiotta teaches at Syracuse University's creative writing program. Spiotta also incorporat­es the story of a fictionali­zed early feminist named Clara Loomis, whose house Sam tends. The book is told in alternatin­g chapters centring on Sam and her daughter, Ally, and one comprising letters and journal entries by young, hopeful Clara. “I am part of something bigger than myself,” Clara writes of her experience in Oneida, a utopian Christian commune near Syracuse (a real intentiona­l experiment). “Living here has untangled me from worldlines­s, from servitude, and from the degradatio­n of woman's lot in life.”

And yet here we are. Sam's modern world is a stew of political agendas and self-actualizat­ion reduced to a hailstorm of acronyms, our need to brand things and belong to our own created communitie­s. WWW! (Women Won't Wilt!) Ally's deep into YAD activities (Young American Disrupters), which seems designed not so much to disrupt as to get into top colleges.

Wayward explores the frailties of modern life, the human tendency to constantly gaze inward to become better, to move further. Sam moves out of her house into a neighbourh­ood fraught with risk only to sleep with her husband, Matt, while accepting his financial support. Two steps into the breach, three steps back into the comfort of the familiar.

“What did she want? She wanted an honest life,” Spiotta writes. “More than that. She wanted a good life. You can do nothing or you can do better.”

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